In his last column, Phil commented how odd this round of fixtures is. Indeed, the first match is to be played on Tuesday and the last on Saturday, which makes for a very long “weekend”.
That said, it’s a cracking set of matches: the 17th round includes El Clasico, the Galician derby, the “other” Madrid – Barcelona derby between Atletico and Espanyol, the Valencian Community derby between Valencia and Villarreal, two duels involving Sevilla teams and Basque teams, a relegation thriller with Malaga visiting Alaves…
Plenty of top level action right before La Liga’s winter break, as if to compensate for the long void that will come until the first weekend of January. A Pantagruelian feast of football dish after dish before the painful, forced diet.
Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
1. Levante (15th) vs Leganés (12th): X. (Tue, 21:00)
I doubt that either of these two would mind getting a point on Tuesday. Serves them well to finish the year far from the relegation battle. Nil-nil.
2. Getafe (10th) vs UD Las Palmas (20th): 1. (Wed, 19:30)
No brainer. Last weekend, Las Palmas earned a miraculous point after having trailed 2-0 at home to Espanyol, but their performance was terrible for a solid 80 minutes. Their own supporters spent the whole match asking for everyone’s head: president, coach, a bunch of players…
The Canarios will probably enjoy playing away from such a convoluted atmosphere, but Getafe aren’t an easy trip. Three wins in their last four matches and the hunger to compensate for a frustrating trip to Girona should be enough to defeat Las Palmas. At this point, two teams with no major differences in talent look miles apart in terms of competitiveness.
3. Real Sociedad (11th) vs Sevilla (5th): 1. (Wed, 21:30)
It’s official, Real Sociedad are in a crisis. In his last column and true to his colours, Phil may have wanted to hide their abysmal match in Bilbao, or the five consecutive matches without a win, but the fact is that the jolly, offensive team that overperformed last season and played well in the opening matches of the current one has become a sad, pusillanimous version of that entertaining side.
Their issues are clear: the back four is unreliable as a defensive unit, while the whole team takes significant spells of matches off, as though all eleven players decide to disconnect from the match at once. Both things have a lot to do with the coach, so Eusebio Sacristan, “the wizard from La Seca”, needs to apply some of his magic to get the young squad out of this slump. The Christmas break can’t arrive soon enough for the Realistas.
But they still have to host Sevilla. The visitors, still in fifth position, aren’t too reliable when they travel, and have alternated excellent displays – the 2-3 comeback win in Villarreal, for instance – with losses that have embarrassed their supporters – 4-0 in Valencia or 5-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu. The recovered Eduardo Berizzo will miss half of his defenders, as the dependable Lenglet saw his fifth yellow card last weekend, so he’ll have to use Geis and Kjaer, a duo against which I’d fancy my chances in a 10-metre run for the ball despite my bum knee. Let’s take Real Sociedad for this one, Carlos Vela’s farewell match, but it promises to be a high scoring match with a winner hard to predict.
PS. Eusebio’s nickname comes from his time with Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona. The tiny midfielder was very skilled with the ball and was born in a minuscule village in Valladolid, La Seca (pop. 1,065 souls), that’s how he became El Mago de La Seca. Amazingly enough, this wine town in Valladolid has produced two top-level players, Eusebio and Goyo Fonseca, both capped for the Spanish national team.
4. Eibar (9th) vs Girona (7th): 1. (Thu- 19:30)
Football became a global sport a while ago, but some of the effects of this phenomenon have only become apparent recently. For instance, Girona applying identical time-wasting techniques to those of their parent company, Manchester City. Used to perfection in the Manchester derby, it’s a fine example of knowledge transfer across business units.
Last weekend it was impossible for Getafe to play in the second half, and we might expect something similar on Thursday. Girona know well that, with 23 points in 16 matches, they’ve more done than their homework, and each extra point in this first half of the season is treasure for the Catalans.
Eibar come off a fantastic win over Valencia, fired up after a great performance before their faithful and, like Girona, well aware that they’re doing as well as one could have wished. To me, three consecutive Eibar wins at home tip the scale in their favour.
5. Alavés (18th) vs Málaga (19th): 1. (Thu- 21:30)
Alaves look better and better under Abelardo, while Malaga can win one week in San Sebastian and then lose at home to Betis the following match. Had the chance to see Alaves’ Pedraza live at the Wanda last weekend and that kid is very promising. Can’t see any player in Malaga — excluding Chory — with his talent.
6. Betis (8th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (14th): 1. (Fri – 19:30)
With a win at Malaga, Betis climbed six positions in the standings and now are three points below the top six. That hardly gives them a different appraisal: They are still a work in progress, soft on defence and unpredictable in their outings, a very emotional team that can impress or frustrate with no rhyme or reason.
Their opponents on Friday are easier to evaluate. They play hard, but don’t really exploit their talents and are weak in a few key positions. This Athletic isn’t as easy to beat as this column once thought, but won’t get very far unless coach Ziganda decides to use their offensive potential with more determination. He’s one of those cases in which a striker becomes a coach and inexplicably leaves plenty of offensive talent on the bench. On Friday, Betis’ passing game should make Athletic suffer.
7. Espanyol (16th) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd): X. (Fri – 21:30)
Some unwritten tradition in Spain determines that Espanyol and Atletico must play the same weekend as Real Madrid and Barcelona, only in the opposite city. I’m not sure this has always happened, but it indeed feels as though it’s like this every year.
At some point earlier in this season, Atleti decided to mimic George Graham’s Arsenal and, with five 1-0 wins so far, have recovered the second position in the table.
Of course, their football isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s probably uglier than ever, as Simeone has given up on Yannick Carrasco and the whole team depends on a midfield formed by the ageing Gabi, the disappointing Koke, the hard-working but unsophisticated Thomas and that version of Saul that rarely reaches the box.
If Antoine Griezmann does not wake up soon, we’re bound to see plenty of more 1-0 wins, but it’s hard to imagine this Atletico pulling a Fever Pitch win at the end of the season. Or at Cornella this Friday, for that matter.
8. Real Madrid (4th) vs Barcelona (1st): 1. (Sat – 13:00)
No jinxes on this one. Granted, some factors could play in favour of the visitors, such as Luis Suarez’s improved fitness and continuous hits on innocent defenders, or Andres Iniesta’s ability to turn a tough situation to keep possession into a goal-scoring opportunity. However, this Barcelona isn’t as dominating as its results proclaim, and their weaknesses at this point – Messi-dependence, short bench and Umtiti’s absence – play well to Real Madrid’s strengths.
The comeback of Daniel Carvajal should keep Jordi Alba busy, and the combination of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro, with the help of Isco, should deal easily with whatever midfield formation Valverde chooses. I have not seen Iniesta play two complete matches in a row in ages, and he killed it against Depor on Sunday, so one expects a less solid version on Saturday. It’s hard to see what Valverde can do to stop the combinations between Real Madrid’s six playmakers (the four midfielders plus the fullbacks) now that they look back in shape.
That is probably my main disagreement with Phil’s appraisal of Real Madrid. They’re progressively recovering the dominating midfield that took them to glory since Zinedine Zidane took over, and it’s only a question of time until Karim Benzema and, yes!, Gareth Bale start putting away a few chances.
This does not mean that I expect an easy game for the hosts by any stretch of the imagination. Barcelona have won four of their last six La Liga matches at the Bernabeu, as it’s obvious that Lionel Messi relishes playing there. But using the proverbial expression that so many abhor, this match is a final, to all intents and purposes, and Real Madrid have indeed figured out how to play them.
9. Valencia (3rd) vs Villarreal (6th): 1. (Sat – 16:15)
This one used to be a gentle encounter between the father and the son, but it’s progressively become a nasty fight between two very similarly aged brothers who struggle to prove they’re stronger than the other.
The growth of Villarreal is unquestionable, but this season Valencia have recovered the leading position, even if they look like they could do with some vacation after a physically extenuating beginning to the season. Marcelino has always demanded plenty of his teams in terms of fitness, and this Valencia squad has started to show that it’s reaching its limit. The hosts are still undefeated at the Mestalla, but this looks like the moment to bet against them. Two defeats in their last three, Carlos Bacca and Cedric Bakambu available, a Villarreal that excels at the counter… This is another must watch, by the way.
10. Deportivo de La Coruña (17th) vs Celta (13th): 2. (Sat – 18:30)
The Galician derby closes a Saturday full of top-level action. Of the three matches, this is the one with less talent, but it’s still a quite interesting one: Lucas Perez, Iago Aspas, Pione Sisto, Emre Colak… Plenty of players to watch, with the added bonus of a sold-out Riazor stadium and the extra intensity that players of both teams employ when they face the eternal rival.
I’ve seen plenty of the two so far this season, and Celta have by far the better squad. Plenty more attacking options, better midfield, more consistent goalie. However, so far only three points separate both teams, which speaks loudly of the visitors’ disappointing results, despite their entertaining approach to football.
I still favour Celta, but it won’t be pretty. A healthy, intense dose of one of La Liga’s most traditional derbies, in order to get ready for Christmas.
Last week: 2/9 (40%)
Season: 54/119 (45%)
Note: Copy this easy summary to write your own quiniela and share it with us in the “Comments’ section.
1. Levante (15th) vs Leganés (12th):
2. Getafe (9th) vs UD Las Palmas (20th):
3. Real Sociedad (11th) vs Sevilla (5th):
4. Eibar (9th) vs Girona (7th):
5. Alavés (18th) vs Málaga (19th):
6. Betis (8th) vs Athletic de Bilbao (14th):
7. Espanyol (16th) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd):
8. Real Madrid (4th) vs Barcelona (1st):
9. Valencia (3rd) vs Villarreal (6th):
10. Deportivo de La Coruña (17th) vs Celta (13th):